This post originally appeared on the Cultural Security Blog.

The long-awaited military offensive to reclaim the northern Iraqi city Mosul from the Islamic State is under way. As the last major ISIS stronghold this offensive is of paramount importance. Today, an estimated 1.5 million civilians inhabit the city. As thousands flee we are on brink of seeing this mass exodus become a humanitarian crisis…and possibly one of the largest man-made displacements in recent times.

The assault was launched on October 17th. Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Sunni Arab tribesmen, and Shia militiamen–assisted by US-led coalition warplanes and military advisers–are fighting to seize control of the city. Hundreds of Islamic State militants are blog_image-20161101reported to have been killed by the Iraqi forces and allied fighters, backed by US-led air strikes. Despite the territorial gains, however, it is estimated that securing Mosul could take weeks, if not months.

The cultural implications of such an offensive cannot be underestimated. To date, over 11,000 people have fled Mosul and the surrounding areas. The UN estimates as many as 700,000 will flee in the upcoming weeks. The UN human rights staff have indicated that they are receiving reports of atrocities being committed by IS militants–including the use of civilians as human shields–and that basic supplies are already running out. Fighting continues in villages to the north, east and south of the city.

As the territory continues to devolve in chaos, we must also consider the disheartening topic of what locals will be returning to once the city is reclaimed. Rampant bombing, air strikes, and purposeful destruction leave little hope for the ancient buildings. Nor does the track record for such military endeavors. We can look to other examples of what has happened after Iraqi forces have expelled ISIS–Ramadi, as one example. We have seen unimaginable destruction and entire cities levelled.

Will Mosul, home to ancient buildings dating back to the 13th century and the second largest university in Iraq, not to mention home to over a million civilians, be livable? Where will the reconstruction money come from? Additionally, Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq and constitutes the chief commercial centre of the northwestern portion of the country. If ISIS is defeated by this conglomerate of forces, who will reap the spoils?

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